While many may have cheered the departure of Jeremy Hunt, the contentious health secretary who presided over years of NHS cuts and staff pay freezes, critics say his successor Matt Hancock looks to be more of the same.
Unite head of health Sarah Carpenter welcomed Hunt’s final exit, one that she said was “long overdue.”
“During his six-year tenure he did nothing to solve the growing problem of social care – the crisis of the next decade,” she said.
“He also failed to address the lack of focus on public health, the increasing waiting lists for routine operations, and leaves behind a workforce who continue to do all they can to hold the service together 24/7 against the odds.”
But revelations about Hancock, who took the health department helm last week (July 9), show that he is likely to follow in Hunt’s footsteps, ones which beat a path to untrammelled NHS privatisation.
Official records have shown that Hancock has accepted more than £30,000 in donations from the chairman of a think tank that has called for the NHS to be privatised and replaced with an insurance-based system.
The new health secretary accepted nine separate donations totalling £32,000 from Neil Record, head of the Institute of Economic Affairs, a right-wing think tank that promotes free market economic principles.
Hancock also accepted a £5,000 donation from director of private nursing agency Swiis Gurdev Dadral in 2015, a Mirror investigation found.
And Hancock himself admitted this week that he is registered with GP at Hand, an online GP video consultation service that critics including Unite have said is defunding general practice.
As UNITElive reported last month, nearly 30,000 people have signed up to the service, which requires you to deregister from your current GP.
The loss of tens of thousands of patients – the vast majority of whom are between 20 and 39 years old and so tend to be healthy – has sparked fears of a substantial loss in registration fees, since it is younger, healthier patients who in effect subsidise the older and less healthy population.
“We are very concerned about the model of care that GP at Hand uses and how it cherry picks the young and tech savvy patients,” said Dr David Wrigley, a GP in Lancashire and chair of Doctors in Unite (DiU) told Pulse.
“Income is lost from practices they leave – income needed for the NHS risk pool that is essential to the survival of every surgery in the country,” he explained. “We urge Mr Hancock to look at the deeper issues affecting general practice on this topic and I’d be happy to meet him to explain our significant concerns.”
Doctors in Unite (DiU) deputy chair and London GP Dr Jackie Applebee agreed.
“It is a pity that the new health secretary has not acquainted himself with the fact that widespread concern has been expressed by GPs with regard to the model of GP at Hand,” she told Pulse.
“We are not Luddites and embrace innovation when it is evidence based,” she added. “NHS general practice has been at the forefront of developing technology in the health service.
Applebee highlighted her concerns about GP at Hand to UNITElive, pointing out that the app called Babylon which GP at Hand uses is demonstrably unsafe.
She recounted how an NHS consultant who tweets under the name @DrMurphy11 exposed serious flaws in the app’s ‘chatbots’ – the Artificial Intelligence used to check patients’ symptoms. He input symptoms suggesting a heart attack that were dismissed by the app as nothing serious. He then input symptoms indicating possible meningitis and again, the app said to go to a pharmacist.
Applebee also pointed out that the service and app are inherently discriminatory because those who are elderly, who don’t speak English or who have complex health needs are not likely to sign up – in fact, GP at Hand explicitly discourages those who are pregnant, people with serious mental health conditions, people with learning difficulties or drug dependence, among others.
“It is truly outrageous how they cherry-pick the healthiest people in the population and discourage others to apply,” she told UNITElive. “They’re essentially exploiting an entire sub-section of the population and in the process destabilising general practice.”
Applebee said she hoped Hancock’s signing up to GP at Hand despite widespread GP condemnation of the service “does not signal his general approach, as I hope that we will be able to work with him to the benefit of all who use the NHS not just one cohort.”
“We hope that Hancock will herald a new era of cooperation with the health unions, but we fear it will be the same thin gruel of a Tory ideology that is undermining the founding ethos of the NHS in the year of its 70th birthday,” she said.
But she added that “it is unlikely that Matt Hancock will end the clear political objective of NHS privatisation by stealth. Fragmentation of the health service continues unabated as private healthcare companies circle, like sharks, for lucrative contracts.”